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Milano-Sanremo proved a few watts too far for some of the race’s top contenders Saturday.
After seven hours of racing in the Italian summer sun, the first monument of the season came down to a two-up sprint for the line on the Via Roma, with Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) snatching the win from defending champion Julian Alaphilippe (Dececuninck-Quick-Step).
Just two seconds behind them, a group of over 2o riders that reads like a who’s-who of one-day racing talent sprinted home for third, with the likes of Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo), Greg Van Avermaet (CCC-Team), Oliver Naesen (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Michael Matthews (Sunweb) all in the chase bunch.
A number of them had tried to respond to Alaphilippe’s formative move over the summit of the Poggio, but with 300 kilometers and five months without racing in the legs, the acceleration wasn’t there.
“I don’t have yet the condition I had at this race in the past,” said perennial Sanremo nearly-man Sagan.
The triple world champion was toward the front of the bunch when Alaphilippe kicked and kicked again to shell all but van Aert, but the Slovakian simply didn’t have the legs to follow.
“My form is steadily getting better, after the Strade Bianche I have definitely improved but I’m not in a position yet where I could have responded to van Aert and Alaphilippe on the Poggio,” he said.
Nibali, winner of the race in 2018 after going clear on the slopes of the Poggio, had launched his own speculative attack shortly before Alaphilippe sparked the race into life. An uncharacteristic miscalculation and lack of top-end put pay to the Italian’s chances to contest for a second win on the Via Roma on Saturday.
“Maybe I attacked too early; I launched the action for Alaphilippe but unfortunately, I did not have enough legs to follow him,” Nibali said. “I didn’t have the explosive component that he and van Aert had.”
Van Avermaet came oh-so-close to holding on to the leaders’ move over the top of the climb, but a knock of bars lost him a crucial second and left him out of gas as he fell into the chase group behind.
“I’m a little it disappointed but in the end, I think the two strongest guys went away,” Van Avermaet said. “I tried to do as good as possible in the second group hoping it would come back but they were super strong so they deserved to be on the podium.”
Whether the race would have played out differently had the likes of Van Avermaet, Sagan and Nibali had more race days and less time on the trainer in the tank is down to speculation. However, it’s beyond doubt that van Aert has come out of the coronavirus racing stop on the form of his life, and Alaphilippe has lost none of his sparkling savvy and tactical nouse despite a long time away from competition.
The Frenchman’s chance to defend his Sanremo title came down to just one pedal stroke after a long day in the saddle.
“I did the best sprint I was capable of after 300 kilometers, and at the end of the day I am satisfied with this result, because a podium in a monument is still important,” Alaphilippe said of his second-place. “This is just my second day of racing after five months, so I can be content with it and draw a lot of confidence from my showing today.”
After an attritional opening to the restarted season at last weekend’s Strade Bianche and then Milano-Sanremo, the peloton has been shocked back into life. Now all they have to do is figure out how to beat van Aert.